- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2006

CLEVELAND — President Bush yesterday said U.S. strategy in Iraq has been developed through “trial and error” but said troops won’t leave until they exit from “a position of strength, not weakness” and resolved not to surrender to insurgents.

“We will leave Iraq, but when we do, it will be from a position of strength, not weakness,” Mr. Bush told the City Club of Cleveland yesterday in the second of a series of speeches on the war on terror. “Americans have never retreated in the face of thugs and assassins, and we will not begin now.”

As in his first terror speech last week, Mr. Bush pirouetted from Iraq to Iran, calling that nation “a serious threat” to Israel in particular and saying the United States will use military force to protect Israel.

“I’ve made it clear, and I’ll make it clear again, that we will use military might to protect our ally, Israel,” Mr. Bush said in response to an audience question, although he said several times that there is still a chance for negotiations to work with Iran.

He also said the situation in Iran is not like the situation three years ago, as the United States was on the brink of war in Iraq.

“One difference was that in Iraq, there was a series of unanimous resolutions that basically held the Iraqi government to account, which Saddam Hussein ignored,” he said.

The president also answered about a dozen questions from the audience, ranging from a defense of his wiretapping authority to his vision for reducing the wealth gap between white and black Americans and his immigration guest-worker plan.

Speaking a day after the third anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Mr. Bush said news on the ground is mixed and admitted that the U.S. strategy has emerged “only after much trial and error.”

He was also unusually frank in talking about the difficulties, including “horrific images” of executions, car bombs and reprisal murders and said he knows that Americans “wonder what I see that they don’t.”

But he said there are signs for hope — most of them dependent on the ability of Iraqi security forces to step up their operations.

Mr. Bush said the situation in Tal Afar, a city 35 miles from the Syrian border that used to be a key location for al Qaeda, shows how coalition forces are learning from their mistakes.

Coalition troops first ousted militants from Tal Afar in September 2004, but within two months, the terrorists had returned and taken over the city again. Mr. Bush said Iraqi security forces weren’t ready at the time to maintain peace.

Last summer, three battalions of coalition forces made a second attempt at cleaning the city, this time led by 10 Iraqi battalions. The difference, Mr. Bush said, was this time the Iraqis were ready for peacekeeping.

“It took time to understand and adjust to the brutality of the enemy in Iraq. Yet the strategy is working,” Mr. Bush said.

Democrats said Mr. Bush’s initial strategy failed because of poor decisions such as not committing enough U.S. troops. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat and a war supporter, said the troop issue was the “one colossal blunder, above all others” that will stand out for historians.

And Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and a war opponent, said Mr. Bush still doesn’t see the situation in Iraq clearly because he “fails to see the very real possibility that Iraq will continue the downward spiral into full-scale civil war.”

During the 90 minutes, the president was animated, at times leaning forward on the podium to answer questions from the audience, freely joking with the audience of hundreds in the hotel ballroom and bantering in Spanish with one questioner.

At one point an audience member, apparently an Indian who wanted to ask a question about U.S.-Pakistani relations, joked, “Every chief needs Indian oversight.”

Mr. Bush joked back, “How long were you working on that?”

In another exchange, Mr. Bush was asked whether he agreed with some evangelical Christians who see the war in Iraq as a sign of the apocalypse. The president said he hadn’t “thought about it that way,” adding, “First I’ve heard of it, by the way.”

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